Dan Empfield reviews the Softride Rocketwing TT

Softride Rocketwing TT  Credit: Softride
Recently, riding a Softride Rocketwing TT with 650c Zipp 404s and Continental 20mm GPs blown up so hard I should be jarring my fillings out of my teeth, if found myself instead rolling along in the bicycle racing version of a land yacht — like cruising to Vegas in an Eldo.

I've ridden Softrides before, but this was my first Rocketwing-style Softride. My first date with it didn't go well. I spent an hour and a half just adjusting it. But the bike and I were on better terms on the second date, and the third, and if it was a permanent fixture in my garage I'm sure I'd get the hang of it. The other good part of it is, although it is idiosynchratic to adjust, it is widely adjustable. It's a shallow bike, it's a steep bike, it's tall, it's short, it's whatever you want it to be.

And as I said, it rides like an Eldo. I should've gotten the crap beat out of me, what with the wheels, the wheelsize, the tire width and tire pressure I was using. I could feel all the nasty stuff I'm rolling over in both my feet and hands (since they aren't suspended). But my butt, my back, all the rest of me rode along, and no light bulbs broke.

The Rocket TT has a carbon beam made right down the highway from me in Poway, California. My long-time friend Doug Roberts and his partner Ken Gamble make these beams for Softride in their little shop, and it really makes the bike light. There is no longer a weight issue with Softrides, at least not the way this bike was set up. This bike felt as light as those I own and ride every day, which is to say if this bike was over 20-pounds I'd be surprised.

I like this bike just fine on the hills. I don't bob, it's not heavy, and I can ride with a lot of power. In fact, the only time I found myself bobbing was when I was just lollygagging around, riding easy, and not concentrating. Whenever I had the hammer down I turned nice little circles and I didn't notice anything problematic with my pedal stroke or leg length.

I'd make some geometric changes if I had my way. The wheelbase is just about right, but the chainstay is a bit short for me, and the front/center was a bit long. The bike wanted to go straight ahead when I was out of the saddle, and I wish it would have been a little more steerable.

In Softride's defense — as regards the chainstay length — it's trying to hide the wheel behind the metal in front of it, just like Cervelo does. I like both the P2K and the Rocketwing, yet I have the same chainstay issue with both. Since both companies are trying to make an aerodynamic statement with their bikes — and since they both succeed — I guess you should apply a filter to my comments about the chainstay length.

As regards this bike's front/center dimension (bottom bracket to front axle), I don't mind the extra distance, I'd just like to quicken up the steering a little. I could probably fix this by choosing a fork with a different offset. The other way for me to fix it would be to move to a size medium frame instead of the large I was riding. The medium already has the shorter front/center, and it also has a slightly shorter head tube, which for a tri bike is about the right size head tube for me anyway.

I'm 6'2", and as is the case with Kestrel, I seem to be fitting on a smaller bike than the rider profile these companies design their bikes for. I'd fit on a 56cm Kestrel (their large size) and I've got a sneaking suspicion I'd fit great on a medium Rocket TT. This is a minor point, though; I could make either the M or the L fit (but the XL would be huge for me).

This is the second cantilevered bike I've ridden this year. I rode the Titanflex a few months ago. The Rocket TT beam flexes a little more than the Titanflex, and all things considered I think I prefer the Titanflex's stiffer beam. But I like this bike's geometry a bit better — the Titanflex was somewhat short for me.

About beam flex, one shouldn't put too much stock in my opinion. Jurgen Zack actually finds this beam a slight bit harsh for him — he quite liked the older style beam. He finds it stiffish, I find it softish. You might find it just right.

Speaking of Jurgen, when I owned Quintana Roo he was one of our riders, and he had some breakthrough races on our bikes. He won an epic Zofingen ride on a QR Zero Gravity, and gave hell to everyone on the lava fields on that bike. But he bought himself out of our contract in order to ride a Softride, because he found it much easier on his well-documented problematic back. Obviously, his various wins and course records while on his Softrides gives credence to the notion that this is not a slow bike. Softrides are also demonstrably slipperier than just about anything else in the wind tunnel.

I admire this company. It reminds me of the old story of Zenith and Motorola. The former considered itself a TV-set maker. The latter termed itself a consumer electonics company. By looking at the broader picture — no pun intended — Motorola survived (making things other than TVs) and prospered while Zenith, with its narrow focus, died.

Softride began without a thought in the world of being a high-tech, high-priced bike manufacturer. In fact, it never wanted to be a bike maker at all, it simply wanted to supply beams. When no bike company (save Zipp, for a while) jumped on board, it started making bikes, only so that it could sell beams. Ten years later, the Rocket TT doesn't even have the original Softride beam. In fact, the beam doesn't flex at all (the suspension mechanism is now different). Softride is the poster child of nimble, strategic thinking. It's done nothing it originally set out to do because of overwhelming market roadblocks. But by turning on a dime — at precisely correct moments — it has done very well for itself.

Do not be misinformed. If you have a back problem because you're badly fit on your bike, the Softride won't fix it. If you are hobbled by saddle discomfort, the Softride won't fix that. I say this because the Softride can fix a variety of problems, but saddle soreness is caused primarily by your 160- or 190- or 220-pounds resting on that small, tender area. Regardless of the quality of a bike's suspension, you're still sitting on that narrow, tender spot. That's perhaps a saddle, or a seat pad, or a bicycle short, or a seat-angle problem. It's not primarily a suspension problem.

Obviously, though, there are structural problems that the Softride can alleviate, as the Jurgen Zack story indicates. If I might make a broad, overly simplistic statement, I'd tend to suspect that bony problems — bad discs and so forth — might be good candidates for the Softride fix. Muscular problems might tend to be more fixable via a better fit and set-up.

But don't think this is only a bike for those with sore backs. It is a proven aero bike — probably the most aerodynamic production bike going. This is also a great technology for 650c wheels, both with regard to comfort and speed (because of its suspension).

I don't think the Softride TT is the bike for every serious triathlete, but I think every serious triathlete ought to consider it before purchasing something else. I was never this magnanimous about Softrides when I had to compete for sales against them, because Softride was always a formidable competitor. Now, though, I'm a much nicer guy.

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